Guide to JavaScript frontend package managers


November 14, 2015

When I started my last frontend JavaScript project I wasn't super familiar with all the package managers, what they do, and what they're for, so I quickly became very confused.

I was recently reminded of that time when I saw this question:

Am I the only one frustrated by the package management situation in frontend development?

I did a little research and I found SEVEN JavaScript package managers that you can use on the frontend.

Why are there so many?

To answer that, I've built a comprehensive list of frontend JavaScript package managers. For each one I'll discuss what sets it apart and why you might use it.

At the very end I'll tell you which package manager I use for everything, and why.

All the Package Managers

These are listed in chronological order based on the first commit date so you can put them in context.

Pro tip: I've listed the twitter handles of the creators of each package manager. Once you pick the one you want to use - follow the creator on Twitter to stay up-to-date!

1. NPM

npmjs.comgithub.com/npm/npm
First Commit: Sep 29, 2009
Creator: @izs
Tagline: "npm is the package manager for javascript"

This one is usually thought of as the node package manager. NPM even stands for node package manager. Obviously you aren't using node in the browser/frontend.

So why is this listed here?

You can use NPM packages for frontend AND backend. Any NPM package that you find might be intended for node only, browser only, or both. These days it seems like most packages can be used in both places.

2. Bower

bower.iogithub.com/bower/bower
First Commit: Sep 6, 2012
Creator: @cra
Tagline: A package manager for the web

Bower has more github stars by far than any other package manager in this list. It is clearly very popular (and has a great logo!).

But you can't go on the star count alone. Bower probably has so many stars because it used to be incredibly useful.

When Bower was created, NPM existed already, but it was for node, not the browser. Node packages didn't usually include assets (like bundled JS and CSS) in their NPM packages. If you needed the assets, you would just download them. That's janky - and that's why Bower was created.

Nowadays NPM packages include frontend assets, so if you are already using NPM for your node backend, you might want to stick with NPM and skip Bower.

3. JSPM

jspm.iogithub.com/jspm/jspm-cli
First commit: Sep 16, 2013
Creator: @guybedford
Tagline: Frictionless browser package management

For users of the SystemJS bundler. If you aren't using SystemJS, you can go ahead and skip this one.

JSPM doesn't host any of its own packages. It allows you to install packages that are hosted on NPM or github. So if you use JSPM, you should search for packages on npmjs.com.

4. Duo

duojs.orggithub.com/duojs/duo
First commit: Apr 9, 2014
Creator: @MattMueller, @mako281
Tagline: A next-generation package manager for the front-end.

Duo lets you specify your require() statements as github paths, (with an optional version) like this:

var uid = require('matthewmueller/uid');
var fmt = require('yields/fmt');
var reactive = require('component/reactive@0.14.x');

The idea is that it saves you time and effort because you don't have to install the package or create a package.json file. Duo finds and installs the package automatically.

I would argue that this is foolish. If you require() a package in multiple places, you have to update all your require() statements any time you want to change the version.

Duo may save a little time in the short term, but it will cost you more in the long term.

Older Package Managers

If you're thinking 'wait, that was only 4, you said there were 7 package managers?', well you're right! I left 3 out.

These package managers are a bit outdated. I list them here for completeness and so you know that if you see them in your travels across the internet, you can safely ignore them.

5. Ender was created way back in 2011, but it only has 6 commits in the github repo for all of 2015. These days that reads as 'not actively maintained'.

6. Component was created in August 2012. According to their github page: "This project is deprecated ... Component is not maintained anymore."

7. Jam was created in May 2012, a few months before Bower. I've left it off my main list because it doesn't have much traction when compared to much newer package managers.

Non-Package-Managers

I've heard these other projects mentioned as package manager alternatives, but they aren't package managers. So take a look, but know that you'll need one of the package managers above, and these are additional tools:

  • napa: If you use NPM as your package manager, napa helps you install github repositories that haven't been configured to be used as packages yet.
  • volo: "volo is a tool which lets you quickly create projects, add libraries, and automate common tasks"

So Which One Do I Use?

Well for starters, which package manager you use depends a lot on how you bundle your JavaScript.

For instance, if you are using SystemJS, (a JavaScript bundler) then you'll use JSPM as your package manager. Those 2 tools have the same creator and were built to work together.

Otherwise, use NPM. Any package worth their salt will be hosted on NPM, frontend packages included. Plus if you are using node for your backend, you get to keep the same package manager for your backend and your frontend.

Next

Next I'll go in depth on all the available frontend JavaScript bundlers like Webpack, SystemJS, and Browserify. I'm working on writing that article right now - so sign up for my mailing list and you'll be the first to know when it comes out!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew H Farmer
Hey, I'm Andrew. Welcome to my blog on Modern JavaScript with React. I'm constantly searching the web to stay up-to-date on the latest frontend web tools so you don't have to. Got a question? Tweet me @ahfarmer!